Of the many trends in the 1980s US auto market, the growing popularity of both pickups and convertibles remain two of the most memorable. But it turned out that the combination of these two popular vehicles appealed to… practically no one. At least we can give the Chrysler Corporation credit for trying something bold, and as a bonus, it provides us with an interesting story to tell three decades later.
The Dakota convertible had many ingredients necessary for success. Light truck sales boomed during the 1980s, as pickups and SUVs made inroads into what had formerly been passenger car territory. Convertibles bounced back from the dead, helped in no small part by Chrysler’s own 1982 LeBaron. Developing a knack for finding market niches, Chrysler gave customers the 1987 mid-size Dakota pickup, popular enough to generate 100,000 annual sales. All of these factors portended well for the first convertible pickup in nearly 60 years.
The Dakota convertible was the first open-cab pickup in modern times, though its species did roam the earth years earlier, with Ford’s 1931 Model A likely being the last. From that point forward, pickups and soft-tops never intermingled.
Not officially, anyway. Car customizers often created convertible pickups, a trend that became increasing popular during the 1980s in sunny locales such as California. This trend didn’t go unnoticed, and Dodge’s product planners, sensing an emerging niche, visited California cruise nights, photographing examples of convertible trucks to prepare for their own adventures with this unusual hybrid.
The patient in this transformational experiment was the Dakota, first introduced for 1987 as the “first mid-size pickup” – filling the surprisingly big gap between compact pickups, like Dodge’s imported Ram 50, and traditional larger trucks like the full-size Ram. Dakota did, in fact, usher in a new class of pickup (after all, the former “compact” trucks are all but extinct now), and was successful enough in its early years to outsell Dodge’s other trucks, but Dodge executives felt something was lacking.
Dakota buyers tended to be older than other pickup owners, and often ordered their trucks fully-loaded – good for Dodge profits, but after a few years of this, the good folks at Dodge felt that their Dakota needed some excitement in its lineup if it wanted to avoid being considered the 5th Avenue of trucks.
This excitement came, in 1989, via two limited-edition models. First, the Shelby Dakota blasted away at the model’s somewhat staid and underpowered image by putting the Ram’s V-8 and a sport suspension into the mid-size pickup, along with Carroll Shelby’s marketing influence.
Accompanying the Shelby in the Dakota lineup for 1989 was our featured vehicle – the convertible. Dodge’s marketing types identified two niche groups to whom the Dakota convertible was likely to appeal: Young trendsetters, and well-off older buyers looking for a pleasure vehicle.
But how many of these people would buy a convertible pickup? Dale Dawkins, Dodge Division’s head of truck product planning, hoped for between 2,500 and 5,000 sales for 1989, with increases from there.” Dodge vice president John Damoose was more sanguine about future years’ sales, saying “we could build up to 30,000 a year, and possibly even more.” Both men were a bit optimistic.
One can’t blame Chrysler for seeing hope in this plan. After all, Chrysler Corporation itself pioneered the convertible’s rebirth just seven years earlier, with its convertible K cars. In that case, Lee Iacocca took a humdrum 2-door sedan, and created a sensation by removing the roof. Could that feat be repeated, but with a pickup? The idea didn’t seem too farfetched for Team LeBaron.
Additionally, in the late 1980s, soft-top light-truck pleasure vehicles – such as the Jeep Wrangler, Geo Tracker and Suzuki Samurai, certainly nurtured a loyal and growing following… another reason for Dodge to feel confident.
For its introductory year, the Dakota convertible was offered in just one trim level – the top-line Sport, itself introduced a year earlier to capture younger buyers with “looks hot enough to melt pavement.” For a $2,000 premium over lesser Dakotas, the Sport added exterior enhancements such as styled wheels, sport stripes, Euro-style blackout treatment (brochure speak for a black-painted grille), a rear step bumper, interior niceties that were optional on other Dakotas, and some functional enhancements like a heavy-duty alternator and battery, front stabilizer bar and upgraded gauges.
Dakota Sports also came standard with Dodge’s 3.9-liter, 125-hp V-6 engine – a welcome improvement from the standard 99-hp four-cylinder engine. All Dakota Sports shared the base Dakota’s 1,450-lb. payload capacity.
Overall, the Dakota, whether Sport or not, was a good, though not particularly memorable, truck to drive. Of course, all that could change with the drop of a top (and an extra $2,000-3,000 for the convertible package).
With base prices starting at about $14,000 for a 2wd (such as our featured truck), and $16,995 for a 4wd, this was not a cheap vehicle. Of course, a hefty price premium was unavoidable, considering the convertible’s production process.
Dakotas were built at Chrysler’s Warren, Michigan truck plant, and then then those destined to become convertibles were shipped 25 mi. to Auburn Hills, where ASC, Inc. (formerly American Sunroof Corp.) removed the steel roof and installed the roll bar and cloth top.
Our featured truck appears to be in fantastic original condition, and this is particularly evident inside. The Bordeaux Red interior shows no visible wear to the bench seat (standard equipment; buckets were also available), and is all-original down to the factory AM/FM non-cassette stereo. This particular truck was ordered with the convertible’s major optional equipment of automatic transmission and air conditioning; power windows and locks were standard. Incidentally, the black plastic slot on the dashboard in front of the passenger seat is a slide-out cupholder, an innovative touch for the times, and standard on all Dakotas. If this truck were a 4×4, the transfer case would be located on the transmission hump.
For 1989, customers could order Dakota convertibles in black, red or white (blue was added for 1990), and all came with the standard complement of Sport package tape stripes. All 1989 convertibles came standard with cast aluminum road wheels, as seen on our featured truck.
In a raised position, the convertible top blended in well with the Dakota’s overall design. On a black example with a black top, most people wouldn’t notice anything unusual about this truck, since aside from the canvas top’s thin-looking pillar area, the rest of the truck looks like a typical Dakota. As indeed it is… the convertible shares the regular Dakota’s 6½’ bed and, in fact, everything other than a small section of roof.
Since the example I found had its top up, it’s helpful to look at a top-down picture to see just how the convertible top opened. The manual top could be raised or lowered by releasing snaps above the sun visors, and lowering the top to its resting position, which was atop the forward part of the truck bed (but not actually lowering into the bed itself). Dodge provided a canvas boot to cover the folded top for a cleaner look, however the boot was big enough to be a hassle to store in the cab, so most owners likely left the boot at home. Alternatively, drivers could remove the folded top completely, if desired, and if confident of sunny weather.
From a driving standpoint, the convertible felt similar to a regular Dakota, as the roll bar maintained the cab’s structural rigidity fairly well. Early press reviews were generally positive, focusing on the fun aspect of driving a truck around with the top down, and the novelty of what Dodge was actually producing.
Favorable press and car show reaction even prompted GM to create its own potential competitor, the GMC Mahalo, which made the car-show circuit in 1990. The Mahalo quickly faded away, however, because Dodge’s own version wasn’t quite exceling in the Showroom Test.
Chrysler executives knew that a convertible truck was a calculated risk, and that success was far from guaranteed. A Dodge Trucks spokesman summed it up well upon the convertible’s launch, by admitting “We have no idea what we’re getting into with this one.”
It turned out that the convertible truck experiment was one that the Dodge folks would rather forget. First year sales of 2,842 were at the low end of expectations, but that number likely represented a big chunk of anyone who would ever consider such a vehicle. 1990 sales fell by about two-thirds (to 909), and it quickly became evident that the experiment failed. Dodge pulled the plug on the Dakota convertible by the end of 1990, though eight examples were evidently produced as 1991 models.
Even though the 1989 model year pointed to a struggling product, Dodge did tweak the Dakota convertible a bit for 1990. Attempting to broaden the truck’s appeal a bit with a lower price, Dodge added a base-model convertible, saving frugal customers from paying for mandatory frills. It didn’t help much, nor did the newly available blue paint or the available white convertible top.
Sometimes ideas just need to be disproven – like whether there’s a market for convertible pickups. Dodge’s Dakota experience demonstrated the answer was No. In hindsight, it’s possible that this vehicle’s closest competitor wasn’t a pickup at all, but rather the Jeep Wrangler – and with no price advantage and no rear seat, buyers just couldn’t justify the Dakota. Or, if potential customers did cross-shop with other pickups, the hefty premium for this convertible put it out of contention. Regardless of what combination of factors sunk the Dakota convertible, it was a resounding verdict, and manufacturers avoided convertible pickups for 30 years…
…until Jeep’s Gladiator debuted for 2020. With Jeep selling more Gladiators every three weeks than the Dakota convertible’s entire production run, it seems that this hit the sweet spot that Dodge missed. Of course, significant differences abound, such as Gladiator’s available hardtop and its full rear seat – many customers may not even regard its top-down capabilities as a reason for buying it. But maybe that’s what it takes to sell a convertible pickup. Time will tell whether the overall idea has more staying power now than it did back in 1989.
Dodge billed the Dakota convertible as “the ultimate fun truck,” and had ample reason to believe customers would agree. But despite the growing popularity of convertibles, burgeoning light truck sales, and a manufacturer adept at creating niche markets, the Dakota convertible achieved no more than footnote status in automotive history – demonstrating that even persistent trends eventually reach their limits.
Photographed in South Yankton, Nebraska in July 2021.
Curbside Classic: 1988 Dodge Dakota – Not Too Big, Not Too Small JP Cavanaugh
A mate of mine had a 28 Ford roadster ute/pickup draughty with the top up worse with it down, I cant quite see the appeal, and its a pickup where is the sporty aspect.
I am laughing at the strength of the CC effect, as it was in the last month that I spied one of these on my morning commute – I had hoped that I might run into it for more shots some day, but I have not seen it since. Anyway, your black example is much more attractive than this white one, that appeared to be in very nice condition.
I remember when these were introduced, and knew that they had not sold well, but never knew the numbers. Thanks for making my morning with this incredible find!
Wow, that’s incredible!
Your picture got me wondering – just how many tape-stripe patterns did these trucks come with? This white one seems different from the example that I found, and also different than the 1990 blue brochure photo.
We could wonder if Dodge would have been more lucky had they tried with the ClubCab version instead of the regular version?
Still besides the Dakota and the Gladiator, Nissan tried its luck with a SUV convertible version of the Murano and they aren’t lucky either.
Lord. I can so see a senior lady driving that.
The Murano convertable – proof of the adage that just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Turns out Nissan was satisfied with the experiment. I did some digging into this, determined to see what the real world results were for the CC. There were some good loyalty and demographic results for the CC, and the execs were on record as being just fine with how it did.
I have a personal soft spot for big convertibles, and this was one.
Didn’t even remember these existed.
A Dakota with a 318 would be the perfect truck for me, as it’s not the Peterbilt sized Ram and it would still be stout enough to pull a camping trailer. A convertible one would be the cherry on the sundae.
I almost bought one in 2000 or so. It was a black 89 4wd. Unfortunately the example I found was a bit beat and 19 year old me needed semi reliable transport so a Toyota pickup was bought instead (which may have been for the best). I later owned a 95 Dakota these trucks do handle well better then most actually and they actually fit well into the concept of a sport trucks (some of their suspension was actually shared with the first gen viper).
The owner of the outboard shop I worked in in high school had a friend with two Dakota convertibles. Both white 2wd’s, they are alot of fun and you do get a lot of looks. The top is easy to drop and not that loud with it up.
Oddly I had an issue of popular mechanics from around 1990, where they did a round up of drop top SUVS (Wrangler, Amigo, Sidekick, Rocky) and they had a sidebar with the Dakota convertible as a potential alternative.
At the risk of being quite crude, at first glance I wasn’t sure if the ad for Ragtime Mini was referring to the truck or the bikini model next to it.
She was also known as Goodtime Mini.
“…or the available white convertible top.”
I never knew such an option existed until now, but there are a few images out there.
Good catch. I’ve seen exactly two of these in my life.
It’s interesting this one is from South Dakota; however, the summers there are quite nice relative to some other places, so this does make sense.
Eric, next time you are in JC, I can show you one of the two. It is (perhaps was) parked behind a car dealer here in town. It’s the same place where a few other cars I’ve written up have been found, such as the ’64 Biscayne taxi.
I just looked, and that example is visible in Google StreetView. Looks like it’s been hanging out there for a while.
South Dakota is an excellent place for car-spotting, though the climate doesn’t exactly beg for convertibles – there’s probably a narrow window between too-hot-for-a-convertible weather and too-cold-for-a-convertible weather.
I doubt I’ve seen one since leaving California.
If Toyota or Nissan had done this, it might have had a better shot at more sales.
I totally agree. I really wanted one of the convertible pickups in the late 80s. I was in my early 20s, so I was the right age; but my income at that point was better suited for a Tercel EZ hatch. The convertible conversions I was seeing were based on the Mazda B2000 pickups, and there were a few of them running around Seattle.
The Mazdas along with the Nissan Hardbodies and the basic Toyotas were much better suited to the youth market. These trucks in their basic form were selling for around $6k during the late 80s. They were an affordable alternative to an econobox.
Perhaps it’s just me, but the Dakota always seemed to be a truck for older men.
Too bad you didn’t raid the parts truck for the necessary pieces to build one later.
Seems like there’s always a cherry Dakota around begging for a buyer.
I fumbled my reply.
I was referring to Jose Delgadillo’s Pick and Pull find.
It’s okay because now I am the age to drive a Dakota! 1987 me would have enjoyed the Mazda conversion, but I think 2021 me would look and feel silly cranking “Girls Girls Girls” down the local cruising street.
The last time I saw one of these was in a local Pick and Pull, sales yard, quite a few years ago. I had almost forgotten about them. I was intrigued but the time wasn’t right for me to buy it. I think that it would have been both fun and useful.
I see a few of these each summer here in Wisconsin. It’s one of those “collectable” vehicles, along with other random convertibles, mostly Chrysler, that people here tend to hold on to in pristine condition and take them out occasionally during the summer.
I was always fascinated by these, but thought that the convertible aspect of them wouldn’t be the best choice as a daily driver where it gets cold.
I recall there being one around here a number of years ago
I like the concept but not really on this truck.
…… a real shame of how the folded top kind of took on the ‘saddle on a sow’ appearance
There was another convertible pickup between the Dakota and Gladiator, the Chevy SSR. It even got the Future CC treatment a few years ago: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/uncategorized/curbside-classic-chevrolet-ssr-dodge-did-it-we-can-do-it-better/
Perhaps they would have sold more if they were marketed with another 1980’s designed oddball… Unlike the Dakota droptop, the Scamp 19 has survived.